François-Alphonse Forel (1841-1912)

François-Alphonse Forel (1841-1912)

Forel was born in Morges, Switzerland, and grew up on the shores of Lake Geneva (known in French as le Léman). He was strongly influenced by his father, a jurist and historian, who took him out on the lake as a boy to search for artifacts from the remains of Bronze Age settlements that lay beneath the inshore waters. He left Morges to continue his education, first in Geneva, then in Montpellier and Paris, and finally at the University of Würzburg, Germany, where he received his doctorate in Medicine and Obstetrics in 1865. When he returned home to Lake Geneva at age 26, he took up a position as professor of anatomy, histology and physiology at the Academy (now University) of Lausanne, but decided to devote his research time to studying the lake in its all aspects, from physics, chemistry and biology, to human history and economics. He unified these diverse subjects in 1892 in a new science that he called ‘limnology’ and defined as the ‘oceanography of lakes’. His work placed emphasis on the integrative nature of limnology, where all specialized subjects are linked and each subject informs the other. He also identified humans as an integral component of the Lake Geneva ecosystem, both in terms of dependence on ecosystem services such as drinking water, fisheries and the aesthetic benefits of living close to water, as well as in their capacity to do great harm to the lake. Forel is especially well known for his seminal work on underwater light and water colour, lake stratification and the surface ‘seiche’ (a Swiss-French word used for centuries at Lake Geneva), the zoobenthos of lakes, and the importance of the organic carbon cycle in linking of all components of the lake ecosystem and its surroundings. By the time of his death at age 71, François A. Forel had produced 288 publications, including the 1900-page, 3-volume monograph ‘Le Léman: Monographie limnologique’ [Lake Geneva: Limnological Monograph] that set the foundation for limnology.

Warwick Vincent, U. Laval


Egerton, F. N. (2014). History of ecological sciences, part 50: Formalizing limnology, 1870s to 1920s. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 95.2: 131-153.

Forel, F. D. C. (2012). Forel et le Léman: Aux Sources de la Limnologie. [Forel and Lake Geneva: To the Origins of Limnology]  Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes, Lausanne, 317pp. This volume (in French) includes a previously unpublished autobiography by F. A. Forel, with commentaries by contemporary limnologists.

Vincent, W.F. and Bertola, C. (2014). Lake physics to ecosystem services: Forel and the origins of limnology. Limnology and Oceanography e-Lectures, 4 (3), doi:10:4319/lol.2014.wvincent.cbertola.8. Available at: